For three decades, they have faithfully fired up their machines, raised up Old Glory and taken off on a mission of freedom, remembrance and resolve. This is the true essence of Rolling Thunder, an annual event which draws 500,000 motorcyclists to the nation’s capital each year to underscore the rights and importance of veterans who fought our wars, those soldiers missing in action, and the POWs who never made it home.
It is a riveting display. And a noisy one.
Rolling Thunder is the perfect name: These riders do roll, and there is thunder. Faith is not overlooked. There’s a “blessing of the bikes” at Washington National Cathedral and a candlelight vigil for the fallen. Camaraderie and remarkable spectacle is paramount. When the 30th annual “Ride for Freedom” begins on Sunday, the half-million stalwarts will gather at dawn in a staging area at the Pentagon. In a process that can take five hours, the biker battalion slowly but surely assembles in a unique but efficient formation — lines of four ready to roll, a million chromed wheels set to make the short journey to the National Mall.
And so it begins.
Wave after wave of riders from every state in the union and a dozen foreign countries pass in solemn formation along this route of honor. American flags are everywhere, the motorcycles are immaculate and the prime directive is paramount.
“No attitudes. Confirmed: everyone must wear a helmet,” reads a terse advisory to participants.
“This is a demonstration, not a parade. POWs, MIAs — we will never forget,” said Artie Muller, a Vietnam-era veteran who co-founded the nonprofit organization in 1987 with fellow vet Ray Manzo.
They took their name from “Operation Rolling Thunder” — the U.S. military code name for the intense, long-term bombing of North Vietnamese targets in the mid-1960s. The pair sent out a call to fellow riders to descend on Washington in a show of support for American military; 2,500 showed up.
Mr. Muller remains adamant about the true nature of the ride on its 30th anniversary, and is quick to praise the 90 chartered Rolling Thunder chapters, plus thousands of supporters, businesses, organizations and serious corporate sponsors for their loyalty and commitment to a cause. Above all, the group seeks a full accounting of all POWs and MIAs, plus improved veteran’s benefits. Their outreach also includes work for multiple charities.
“What have we gained in the past years? Together we have helped foster legislation for our troops and our veterans. We continue to put pressure on the government to do something about the POWs and MIAs who were left behind and never returned,” Mr. Muller said. “The government and legislators in Washington know Rolling Thunder and our mission. But much more has to be done.”
Which does not sound like he’s ready to retire from his efforts anytime soon.
“His heart will be with Rolling Thunder until the day he dies,” one close friend remarked.
Like many of his peers, Mr. Muller, 71, is still troubled by films of Americans prisoners marched through the streets of Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Mr. Muller says there have been 10,000 reported sightings of live Americans still living in “dismal captivity,” a phenomenon that he believes is ignored by officials and the mainstream press.
“Keep the pressure on our government and maybe, just maybe, our government will wake up and do its job,” Mr. Muller said. “Talk is cheap when our government states they will do everything possible to bring all live POW and MIAs home. We need to see some action taken.”
President Donald Trump appears to be an ardent Rolling Thunder fan. He was the sole presidential candidate who appeared at the event in 2016, standing before an appreciative crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, many of them already pledging to vote for him when election time came.
“We’re going to take care of our veterans. Our veterans have been treated so badly in this country. In many cases, illegal immigrants are taken much better care of by this country than our veterans,” Mr. Trump told them, also vowing to “knock the hell” out terrorists.
Veterans themselves voted for Mr. Trump at a 2-1 ratio over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton according to 2016 exit polls. Meanwhile, the president remains on cordial terms with Rolling Thunder — both the membership and the event alike.
Things were, perhaps, a little cooler in the previous administration. Former President Barack Obama and other White House officials met briefly with the organization on at least two occasions; there were photo ops and conversation.
During his time in office, former President George W. Bush personally met with Mr. Muller and Rolling Thunder officers multiple times, welcoming the riders and their mammoth Harley Davidsons himself, right in the White House driveway. In 2004, Mr. Bush brought the group to the Oval Office for a friendly visit, where he accepted an invitation to become an honorary member, then quickly donned a black leather vest emblazoned with the fierce Rolling Thunder emblem.
Vice President Mike Pence is hands-on active with the group. Last year, he rode with the Indiana Rolling Thunder unit, back when he was still governor of the Hoosier State. Mr. Pence was aboard a fine, burgundy colored Harley, decked out in denim and black leather.
“I commend Indiana Rolling Thunder and all of its members for the work they continue to do on behalf of our veterans, active duty military personnel and their families,” Mr. Pence said at the end of the ride, in his straightforward Indiana style.
Republicans and Democrats agree on very little these days, meanwhile. They do agree on the Rolling Thunder mission, though. A better life for U.S. veterans is something both parties consistently support according to research. The military and its vets tops the list of the nation’s most trusted public institutions, according to Gallup and other polls. Gallup also found that Americans across the board support improved benefits for vets; 91 percent say they should be able to get medical care with any provider which accepts Medicare; three-fourths approve modernization of the Department of Veterans Affairs itself.
The cause also attracts famous folks and serious military brass. Iconic singer Nancy Sinatra has ridden in the demonstration on multiple occasions, as has Robert Patrick, the formidable sci-fi film star, and veteran actor John Amos.
“This means more to me than anything in Hollywood. This is real life,” Mr. Amos once said of the Rolling Thunder experience.
High-profile riders over the years have also included Sarah Palin; former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen Michael G. Mullen and Richard B. Myers; Sergeant Major of the Army Ken Preston; and Anthony J. Principi, former secretary of Veterans Affairs.